Buhari, civil servants and ministers
EVEN though the mantra of change of the All Progressives Congress (APC) seems to be denuded of transformational impetus, it would not be a surprise if President Muhammadu Buhari brings some innovations into governance. Such innovations are very much welcome in so far as they would improve the lot of the people who have for many years suffered pulverisation at the hands of their political leaders. But part of such innovations that the citizens expect is not running a government without ministers.
For it is quite clear now that but for the limitations imposed by the nation’s constitution, Buhari would have preferred to run his government without ministers. The President cryptically expressed this perspective last week in an interview with French television station, France 24. Media reports quoted the President as crediting civil servants with the commitment to the day-to-day running of the public sector while dismissing ministers as those who “make a lot of noise.”
One of the sources of the citizens’ disenchantment with the Buhari presidency has been its failure to appoint its ministers almost four months after being sworn into office. The presidency and the APC have tried to valourise this failure to the citizens as an act of presidential magnanimity for which they should be grateful. The argument has been that so much time is needed to clear the rot left for the nation by the former administration of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The argument continues that Buhari needs sufficient time to carefully choose ministers who are not smeared with corruption.
Yet, the President’s position as articulated during the interview does not lend credence to the above justifications for the failure to name a cabinet. Rather, what is clear from the interview is that the President’s failure to name a cabinet is deliberate. In clear terms, Buhari does not understand the necessity of running a government with ministers and but for the demand for them by the constitution, he would not have appointed any.
As far as Buhari is concerned, every minister is a politician who would only come to public office as a means of prosecuting his political agenda and making “noise” that does not contribute to the nation’s development. It is not likely that even the President’s most ardent supporter would readily endorse his notion of a minister as an unnecessary appendage on government.
Instead of the President’s interview doing him any good, it only portrayed him in a very negative light before Nigerians and the international community. Even if Buhari positively surprises Nigerians later by choosing the right people as ministers, it is clear from this interview that that would only be an accident.
For in the reckoning of the President, what matters in the choice of those who should be part of his government is not merit underpinned by capability but political expediency. Since this is his reasoning, how can he deny the charge that his appointments so far are not necessarily based on merit but on a crude quest to put his minions in strategic positions? So what happens to his much-touted commitment to the need to avail the nation of the best people that has made him to confine his search for public servants to his northern region?
Clearly, the nation does not need politicians as ministers now. The nation needs capable people who would solve its multitudinous problems. It needs people who would fix its problems in education, economy, electricity, security, and infrastructure, among others. If the President and the citizens have the same aspiration in this regard, why is he fixated on the notion of the minister as a noise-making politician? Unless the President truly means every word that those he would appoint as ministers are politicians, it is the height of presidential indecorum to denigrate technocrats who would abandon their careers and businesses in order to serve the nation as mere politicians and noisemakers.
Since the opinion of the President is that ministers are only noisemakers, it would only be due to the high sense of patriotism and professional competence of his ministers that would make them to perform and meet the expectations of Nigerians. Unfortunately, those who would take their cue from Buhari would spend their period of appointment not contributing significantly to the development of the nation. After all, the expectation of the President is that they should only make noise and dissipate their energies on political activities that do not redound to finding solutions to the urgent questions of national development.
While discerning citizens have not ceased blaming civil servants for contributing largely to the under-development of the nation, Buhari regards them as the ultimate catalyst of its growth. To be sure, the President’s case inthis regard would have merit if he were talking in the 60s and 70s when civil servants were indubitably the touchstones of professional excellence and personal integrity.
However, the President’s case is sufficiently invalidated in so far as he apparently had the contemporary civil servants in mind when he spoke. The President cannot convince the citizens that simply because some civil servants have been in office for a long time they are better left to run the government rather than bringing in ministers. Yes, these civil servants have been in office for 15 or 20 years. Yes, they are the repositories of the records of their ministries and they would guide the new ministers. But the stark fact that the President ignored is that even though these civil servants have been in office for this long time, the country is stalked by under-development and every sector is being plagued by a plethora of ills that negates the improvement of the well-being of the citizens. The President certainly missed the point when he said that the absence of his cabinet had no adverse effect on the economy.
No doubt, among the contemporary civil servants, there are credible, intelligent and professionally competent people.
But if there is any contribution to the society that is easily identified with civil servants now is their introduction of political leaders to the corrupt ways of government. They have been indicted for putting pressure on ministers who are coming into public office for the first time to manipulate the rules for their personal gain. One wonders what improvement the economy has got for the past three months that he has been running the government with only the civil servants. Indeed, if only for the sake of injecting fresh ideas into the routine of public service as conducted by civil servants, the wisdom of the framers of the constitution in asking for ministers to be part of government is unassailable. This constitutional stipulation may only be vitiated if the ministers are Buhari’s “politicians” and “noise-makers.”
• Dr. Onomuakpokpo is a member of The Guardian Editorial Board.